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Lugano Autumn Festival Guide: Chestnuts, Food, and Music

Lugano Lakeside during Autumn

In a world that's always changing, some things remain timeless. Join me as we revisit the unforgettable Lugano Autumn Festival. Let's indulge in the flavors, sounds, and stories that make this event a perennial favorite.

Hands down, this is one of my favorite autumn events in Switzerland. The Lugano Autumn Festival has a way of turning the usually quiet city into an outdoor cornucopia of seasonal foods, events, and traditions.

The diverse regionality is one of the things that makes Switzerland so special.

The 26 cantons of Switzerland are markedly distinct in almost every way possible: architecture, food, history, or traditions - big and small. Even the umpteen dialects of Switzerland’s four official languages can vary from one town to the next.

Visitors to Switzerland can best feel and get a taste of this diversity and seasonality through the celebrations, colors, foods, and unique traditions. Every region, canton, and community has its special way of celebrating the passing of the seasons. Ticino is no exception, with the Lugano autumn festival showcasing the best that Ticino has to offer.

Lugano Autumn Festival 2019

Regional specialties at the Lugano Autumn Festival

Anyone who lives in Lugano will tell you it’s quiet… maybe even too quiet. But in October, Lugano suddenly comes alive to celebrate autumn.

In a multi-day festival that runs late into the night, you’ll find all the wonderful crafts, foods, and traditions that come with this season. I'd previously written how Ticino is made for autumn, and I mean it.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite part: the food!

Terroir might be a bit of an overused word at the moment. Still, the Lugano autumn festival is a masterclass in what it is and why it is so important for food quality and for creating a regional identity.

Many dishes served from the food booths and pop-up restaurants throughout the city have evolved over the centuries. They changed in response to the natural resources that were available to grow, as well as to the changing climate and culture.

Not entirely Italian but not quite alpine, Ticino’s food traditions borrow the best from both culinary worlds.

Colder climates feature foods that warm a person up, and the Ticino's autumnal delicacies like polenta, pizzoccheri, and luganighetta are just that: hearty, warming, and heavy enough to keep you going through a busy day or a cold night. Of course, while they taste great year-round, they are much better when a chill is in the air.

Nuts about chestnuts

Chestnuts are one of Ticino’s main specialties and have a long history as a vital food staple.

You can see the chestnut trees everywhere you go, but only in the autumn, when the nuts are harvested, can you enjoy all the chestnut-based delicacies.

Of course, the classic coal-roasted chestnuts warm your hands and give every European city that nice, nutty, wintry smell.

There is also chestnut cake, nocino chestnut liqueur, and my favorite, vermicelli.

This is a sweetened chestnut paste that, if you buy it on the street, is pushed through a mold (like Play-Doh). This creates long, thin, sweet chestnut ‘noodles’ that are coiled into a cup and topped with Chantilly cream. Just think of it like a winter gelato substitute.

The Lugano Autumn Festival sometimes coincides with the Chestnut Festival in Ascona, so you can see just how important the tree is to the Ticinese.

Lugano Autumn Festival 2019

A celebration of regional crafts and music

The Lugano Autumn Festival is not just about food, however. Regional crafts, music, and products are also being celebrated. During the day, you can browse the red booths around Piazza Riforma and down along Via Nassa. They sell everything from artisanal food products like incredible local honey and merlot to unique handcrafted items.

Lugano Autumn Festival 2019


Lugano is normally a quiet city, but its yearly events include some real gems that pack the city with visitors, like the famous Blues to Bop music festival in September or the autumn festival each October.

October is also the month that summer usually ends in Lugano, but this doesn’t mean that any of the fun stops. During the day, you can still stroll around in the warm sunshine, while the evening’s chill only demands a light jacket.

When I visited last year, Parco Ciani by the lake was packed with weekenders enjoying the flowers, and the lake was dotted with paddle boaters taking advantage of the stunning weather. It was also the perfect condition for a guided walking tour of the city, which leaves the Lugano Tourism office in Piazza Riforma.

Lugano Autumn Festival 2019

Once the sun sets, you get to see the modern evolution of the Lugano Autumn Festival.

Piazza Riforma is the city’s stunning main square, where all the most important events start. Once the sun goes down, it becomes the festival’s hub; stages host live music, and stalls sell handmade crafts, while marquee tents crank out grilled sausages and a variety of hot, cheesy fall fare.

My favorite is the pizzoccheri tent, serving up the gooey, stick-to-your-ribs buckwheat pasta dish that can only be found along the Swiss-Italian border.

The atmosphere inside the tents is always lively and congenial, if a bit hectic by the usual Lugano standards, as everyone rubs elbows at the shared picnic tables, something that certainly didn’t happen this year.

Lugano Autumn Festival 2019

As you move through the city, each piazza has something to offer. Pop-up bars and grotti line the streets, music can be found on every corner, and you can chat with visitors from all over Switzerland and the world.

In 2019, Via Nassa, an elegant shopping street leading off Piazza Riforma, was particularly festive. One grotto, with a balloon arch for an entrance, featured a line of steaming cast iron cauldrons made specifically to brew potions but contained various soups and polenta.

Another grotto, the very appropriately named Grottino al Fiasco, was so packed that getting to the counter to make an order was nearly impossible, let alone getting space at a shared table.

Waiting in line among a packed crowd of people, a memory that now induces anxiety, I remember watching the chefs working busily in the open kitchen, particularly the woman operating the dangerous-looking polenta contraption.

Lugano Autumn Festival 2019

If you spot a huge metal barrel with an electric whisk the size of an outboard motor, that’s the polenta pot.

The polenta in Ticino is a bit different from the version typically served in Italy. It’s thicker, heartier, and served plain with a thick slab of local cheese or sausage. If you want something a bit “lighter,” try the incredible onion soup served in a boule of dark bread.

And don’t forget a bottle of Ticino Merlot!

All the food was brought out to the table by an army of ever-smiling grotto volunteers, most kids and teens, who ducked and wove their way through the crowd with the plates. The seating might have been a fiasco at this pop-up grotto, but the food and fun familial atmosphere made all the chaos worth it.

Polenta at the Lugano Autumn Festival 2019

After leaving the grotto, I grabbed a vermicelli from a street stand and wandered down Via Nassa until I reached the LAC, Lugano’s stunning arts and culture center. It is usually quiet and peaceful here, offering a stunning panoramic view of the city’s lakefront and surrounding mountains.

It was the perfect place to digest for a moment and listen to the music of the celebrating city floating out over the lake. Lugano’s autumn festival was one of the few big seasonal events this year, a testament to the city’s careful planning, social distancing, and hygiene rules.

Even though I have to make do with memories of last year’s festival, I know everyone who attended this year enjoyed the same stunning food and scenery.

The next edition takes place from Sept 29 to Oct 1, 2023.

Lugano Lakeside Autumn 2019

Samuel Miller

Samuel is a freelance writer and photographer currently based in Lisbon, Portugal. Born in the US, he has spent the majority of his life moving and traveling around the world, including 4 years in Lugano where he met his wife and completed his first degree in Swiss history.

His expat family has now lived in the Basel area for many years, so it’s safe to say his heart belongs in Switzerland.

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Samuel Miller

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